Thursday, July 30, 2015

All The Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

Violet Markey and Theodore Finch do not meet cute—they meet dire. Atop the bell tower at their school, each looking for a way out. A way out of relentless grief, in Violet’s case, and a way out of the darkness of depression, in Theodore’s case.  For Violet, this is the first time she’s been on this ledge, literally and figuratively. Finch, on the other hand, has become a morbid authority on the subject of suicide. Finch talks Violet down from the ledge and then joins her in safety, gallantly creating the public image that she was only up there to rescue him, someone all his classmates already know to be a “Freak.”

Neither Violet nor Finch jump or fall in the opening of Jennifer Niven’s emotionally charged young adult novel, All The Bright Places. But they do fall for each other, as the manic pixie dream boy antics of Finch prove an elixir for Violet, who has entombed herself in grief since the car accident that killed her older sister, Eleanor. And Violet’s embrace of Finch’s essential goodness allows him to rise above the “Freak” label his undiagnosed bipolar disorder has burdened him with for years.
When Finch offers/insists on being Violet’s partner for their Indiana state history project, one that involves “wandering” around the state in search of notable sites, All The Bright Places becomes, for a time, a clever gender twist on the “manic pixie dream girl” trope. Finch brings a brightness and spontaneity into Violet’s life that chips away been at her grief and survivor’s guilt.

But Finch is more than a manic pixie dream boy—he is also a depressed gnomic nightmare boy, one who has always ridden out his depressive episodes alone, as one would growing up with an abusive father and an emotionally absent mother.  And despite the brightness Violet has brought to his life, Finch finds himself unable to accept help, mostly because of his misguided but understandable notion that to accept such help means to assent to a label. Having endured the “Freak” label throughout his adolescence, Finch fears the yoke the “bipolar” label will add.

Using the shared narration of Finch and Violet, Nevin has crafted a moving depiction of a complicated teenage romance. She has also, to her credit, avoided any semblance of a simplistic happy ending, showing a respect for her teenage (and adult) readers that the young adult genre is too often without, particularly when dealing with weighty issues like mental illness and suicidal ideation.

Finch is a musician and a songwriter, and Violet is a writer, though writing too fell away in her passionless post-Eleanor life. Words, beyond their denotations, mean something to these characters. So I leave you with some words from Scottish songwriter Roddy Woomble, words that would fit well in Nevin’s plaintive author’s note:

“Don’t let the darkness become another form of light.”

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